Clemson showing familiar clutch gene in staying perfect

Deshaun Watson went over 400 total yards for the second straight game as Clemson earned its first win in Tallahassee since 2006.
WPPROD

Just maybe, we had the wrong expectation level for Clemson.

With the band back together — Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman and Ben Boulware and the return of Mike Williams and on and on — the Tigers had the potential to captivate like USC in its Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush days.

These most certainly aren't those high-flying, dominant Trojans. But Saturday's 37-34 win over Florida State in Tallahassee offered another glimpse of the identity of Dabo Swinney's preseason College Football Playoff favorites.

This is a team with the same clutch gene as the one Jimbo Fisher rode to the 2014 playoff behind Jameis Winston.

The Tigers now have five wins by seven points or less, including two in back-to-back games. Luck? Swinney isn't buying that take.

“There's got to be something more to it than just: Well, they got lucky,” Swinney told reporters. “That's your heart. That's your guts. That's your toughness. It's your whole culture of your program. That's what it takes to win those type of games. It's a belief. It's just an undeniable will to win, and it's special to be a part of.”

Watson has embodied that, delivering a 34-yard pass to Jordan Leggett and hit Williams for a 2-point conversion with 2:06 left to give the Tigers the lead.

He was 27 of 43 for 378 yards, two TDs and two interceptions, and ran for 52 yards. It was his second straight game of 400-plus yards, and a prime time showcase as he tries to eat into the sizable Heisman Trophy lead Louisville's Lamar Jackson has built himself.

But that's a narrative for another time as the Tigers continue their march to the ACC Championship Game, needing to lose two of their final three conference games vs. Syracuse, Pitt and Wake Forest before anyone else can think of seizing the Atlantic Division lead.

As for those 2014 Seminoles comparisons, over half of that team's wins came by seven points or less, including a six-point, overtime win against Swinney's Tigers. Winston, who electrified as a redshirt freshman in winning the Heisman, took a considerable step back statistically, going from being the nation's leader in pass efficiency to ranking 27th after throwing 18 interceptions (eight more than in '13).

Likewise, Watson was among FBS' leaders in that department last year, sitting 12th, and has now dropped to 35th as he's already thrown 10 picks (three more than in '15).

Granted, Clemson will be looking for a different ending than those Seminoles, who were suffered a 39-point loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl semifinal.

But it's a familiar path for an ACC team in the short history of the CFP, and in the eyes of its selection committee, the Tigers emerged from a Saturday that saw three unbeatens — No. 7 Nebraska, No. 8 Baylor, No. 10 West Virginia and No. 13 Boise State — stumble with their perfect record still intact.

It hasn't been pretty considering the preseason hype and possibilities that surrounded a star-studded core. Though maybe that's on us. The Tigers are winning, and they're doing it their own cardiac-inducing way.

“I don't know what to say other than this group just believes they're going to win,” Swinney said

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' is out now, and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners' will be released Nov. 22, 2016.